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Kyiv, Ukraine — As Russian troops sacked occupied Kherson and Moscow rushed in reinforcements ahead of a looming battle for the strategic southern port, the city’s Kremlin-appointed proxies dispatched a team on a special mission to a majestic 18th-century stone cathedral.

They were sent to steal the bones of Prince Grigory Alexandrovich Potemkin.

The memory of the 18th-century general is vivid for those in the Kremlin bent on restoring the Russian Empire. It was Potemkin who in 1783 persuaded his mistress Catherine the Great to annex Crimea. As the founder of Kherson and Odessa, he envisioned the creation of a “New Russia,” a dominion that stretched across southern Ukraine to the Black Sea, and when President Vladimir V. Putin invaded Ukraine in February with the aim of creating a To restore part of a long-lost empire, he invoked Potemkin’s vision.

The term “Potemkin Village” was coined to describe an impressive facade erected to hide an undesirable condition. Now that Putin’s army has failed in its march to Odessa and is at risk of being expelled from Kherson, Putin’s grand plans are in jeopardy — but belief in Russia’s rightful empire still runs deep among Kremlin loyalists.

So it was that a team of Kremlin loyalists descended into a crypt beneath a lonely white marble tombstone in St. Catherine’s Cathedral.

To get to Potemkin’s remains, they would have opened a trapdoor in the floor and climbed down a narrow passage, say people who have visited the crypt. There they found a simple wooden coffin marked with a single cross on a raised pedestal.

Under the lid of the coffin, in a small back pocket, was Potemkin’s skull and bones, carefully numbered.

Russia-appointed head of the Kherson region, Vladimir Saldo, said Potemkin’s remains were taken to an undisclosed location east of the Dnipro River, where Russian forces may be preparing to withdraw while Ukrainian troops are closing in on the city.

“We transported the remains of the Holy Prince, which were in St. Catherine’s Cathedral, to the Left Bank,” Mr Saldo said in an interview broadcast on Russian television. “We transported Potemkin ourselves.”

Local Ukrainian activists confirmed that the church was ransacked and removed along with the bones of statues of revered Russian heroes.

Simon Sebag Montefiore, the author of the book Catherine the Great and Potemkin, said in an interview that the Kremlin contacted him shortly after its publication in 2000 to say how much Mr. Putin admires his work. But Mr Montefiore said Thursday that Mr Putin’s understanding of history is deeply flawed and that his war has left Ukrainian cities like Mariupol and Mykolayiv in ruins, which Potemkin and early Russian imperialists helped build.

“Potemkin would have despised Putin and everything he stands for,” he said.

But the importance of the bones to Russia, Mr Montefiore added, underscores the “power of history and the power of corpses,” particularly for the Kremlin, which has based its arguments for war on a distorted version of history.

Kremlin loyalists made no effort to hide the theft. Mr Saldo said: “Those were my decisions because those are my powers, my duties and responsibilities.”

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